Undercover informant in Whitmer kidnap case is postal worker, former Army sergeant

Top, from left: Adam Fox and Barry Croft
Bottom, from left: Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta
Top, from left: Adam Fox and Barry Croft Bottom, from left: Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta

An undercover informant who infiltrated the Wolverine Watchmen and spied on the suspects charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revealed his identity in court Friday: He's a postal worker and former Army sergeant who joined the militia to protect gun rights.

But he quickly left the group after hearing members talk about killing police officers, he testified, and then went undercover for the FBI.

"They were trying to get the addresses of law enforcement. I was not okay with that," the informant known as "Dan" told the jury.

Dan testified that he was concerned after hearing the group discuss an operation known as "a reverse red flag," which, he said, involves targeting police and killing them. He reached out to the police, reported what he heard, and a week later the FBI contacted him.

Dan said the FBI asked him if he would stay in the group and monitor their activity. He agreed, telling the jury that he was concerned about the safety of his 5-year-old daughter, but he did it anyway.

When asked to explain why:

"I was concerned about police," Dan testified, noting he eventually had to sell his house and move due to fears for his family's safety.

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Dan, who had served in combat in Baghdad, testified that he joined the Wolverine Watchmen in March 2020. That was the start of the pandemic, when COVID-19 upended everyone's lives with shutdown orders and mask mandates - which riled up the Whitmer kidnap suspects.

Dan said he was permitted to join the Wolverine Watchmen after answering three questions, which he could not recall. He was then vetted to get into an encrypted chat, and got in after telling the group he was a Libertarian and that he "wanted to defend the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies."

At the time he joined, Dan said, defendant Ty Garbin was a leader of the Wolverine Watchmen and defendant Kaleb Franks was about to become a leader. Garbin and Franks previously pleaded guilty in the case and have agreed to testify against the others.

"Did you do it for money?" the prosecutor asked.

"No," Dan responded.

"Did the FBI offer you money to stay in the group," the prosecutor asked.

"No," Dan replied, though he later added that he was eventually compensated for his work: about $24,000 in total.

But the FBI did not pay for him to buy a new house when he had to move out of concern for his safety, Dan told the jury.

Once inside the militia, Dan told jurors he entered Fox's circle of trust — the men he believed to be most willing to actually carry out a plot to kidnap Whitmer.

Dan was with the group when they cased Whitmer's vacation home near Traverse City. Jurors were shown videos captured of that surveillance, which showed Dan standing at a boat launch on the opposite side of the lake the home sits on.

In the video, a flashing light could be seen across the lake. Dan said he was standing on the dock at the home, flashing the light as a proposed signal to the others on the opposite side. He said the group had purchased an infrared light and night vision goggles needed to see the light.

The group had mapped out how they would transport the governor from her home to a boat waiting in Lake Michigan, where the men allegedly planned to take her out to the middle of the lake and desert her.

After the group's meeting, which took place Sept. 12-13, 2020, Dan returned to the governor's vacation home — this time with FBI agents who re-enacted the surveillance and filmed it. That video also was played for the jury, and included a clip of an agent descend down a wooden stairwell over a cliff, with railing on one side and the cliff on the other.

The defense has portrayed Dan as the key player in this case who did a lot of the grunt work at the best of his FBI handlers. It was Dan, who went by 'Big Dan,' who ran the operation and enticed the suspects, the defense has argued.

"Big Dan suggested the recons, invited the participants, provided transportation, gas, food, and direction," the defense argues, "and largely determined where they went and when and how they got there."

On Friday, Christopher Gibbons, who is representing alleged ringleader Adam Fox, said he expects the cross examination of the informant to be the longest of any of the government's witnesses.

"Dan has the most to offer," Gibbons told the judge after the jury was dismissed.

Dan is the first undercover informant to testify in the trial involving four men charged with plotting to kidnap the governor out of anger over COVID-19 restrictions. Undercover FBI agent Mark Schweers, who also infiltrated the group, was on the stand before him, and told the jury Friday that Fox, the accused ringleader, was serious about kidnapping the governor.

Schweers contradicted the defense's theory that the defendants were merely tough talkers and engaging in fantasy role playing, telling the jury that Fox had an issue with people who engaged in role playing and called them "posers."

Defense attorneys spent a bulk of their time Friday morning cross examining Schweers, trying to highlight incompetence and the lack of actual planning from the alleged conspirators.

Attorney Joshua Blanchard, who is representing Barry Croft, fixated on a discussion to kidnap Whitmer and leave her in a boat floating in the middle of Lake Michigan.

In a recording played for the jury, Adam Fox could be heard laying out a plan to steal a boat to approach the governor's residence, shoot her security detail, then head to Lake Michigan. There, at least one other boat would be stolen to pilot the governor out to the middle of the lake and leave her.

Blanchard argued the plot had too many flaws to be taken seriously. At times, he and Schweeps would contend different points of argument, with Chief Circuit Judge Robert Jonker interjecting to say the two were "getting pretty argumentative."

"The governor in this plan has got to get in one of these boats, right?" Blanchard asked the agent. "Where were they going to go to?"

Blanchard questioned the type of motors in the boats, if the boats would have navigation systems and how the men were going to know they were in the middle of the lake, and if the boats had lights to see clearly in the darkness.

"Who would pilot these boats?" Blanchard asked.

"Not me," the agent answered.

The agent also was grilled about his knowledge that the suspects used marijuana, which has come up repeatedly during trial with the defense maintaining the suspects were "crazy stoned" most of the time and couldn't be taken seriously.

Defense attorney Chris Gibbons, who is representing Fox, has argued to the jury that his client was a "misfit" who was high on pot during many of his meetings with the undercover agent.

But he wasn't always high, the agent testified, telling jurors that Fox did not smoke pot when he talked about kidnapping the governor, which was an "ongoing conversation."

"Did his smoking of marijuana undermine his seriousness about this topic?" the prosecutor asked the agent.

"No," the agent testified.

Defense attorney Michael Hills, who is resenting Brandon Caserta, also raised his client's tendency to smoke marijuana.

While cross examining the agent, Hills noted that Caserta was not part of a trip to survey the area near the governor's vacation home near Traverse City.

That's because Caserta was off getting high, the agent testified, noting he heard Caserta say that he was going to smoke while walking away from him and Fox that day. That wasn't captured in the recording, and Hills questioned if that really happened.

In the courtroom, Hills walked away from the lectern, in what appeared to be an example of the difficulty of hearing from someone who is walking away.

The trial resumes 8:30 a.m. Monday in U.S. District Court.

On trial are Fox, 38, of Potterville, who is accused of being the ringleader; Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion; Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township, and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware. All face kidnapping conspiracy charges; three face weapons of mass destruction charges.

If convicted, each faces up to life in prison.

Tresa Baldas: tbaldas@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Whitmer kidnap plot informant is postal worker, ex-Army sergeant